Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary — Conservation
Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary strives to keep wild horses in their original family and social groups, maintaining their unique genetic lines so they may continue to evolve without the threat of capture or removal.
In order to meet the challenge of the rapidly diminishing number of Wild Horses in America, we first need to preserve and protect those that remain. Therefore, the core of our conservation efforts focuses on:
- Providing rescue and sanctuary and,
- Preserving rare breeds that might otherwise be lost forever.
- National education and advocacy for viable solutions and management models to protect wild horses on their existing rangelands, such as the establishment of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and Coalition in 2004
Committed to preserving the many rare and diverse bloodlines that define the American wild horse of today, Return to Freedom preserves diverse herds maintained in separate areas according to their geographic origins. Some of the herds represent horses with DNA similar to the primitive Iberian horses (the Sorrias), some are direct and undiluted descendants of Padre Kino’s original Spanish Mission strain which arrived in the 1600s, the Choctaw ponies who arrived with Hernando DeSoto in the 1500s and other Spanish Barb horses who, as they escaped or were turned loose, were the foundation of what we later called “ Mustang.’ Most of these original horses have been destroyed and only exist in very small numbers totaling less than 500. Other herds at the sanctuary represent descendants of cavalry horses and ranch horses that have interbred on our public and park lands and have reverted to a natural state over the past five centuries. These wild horses of today, managed by government agencies, continue to battle for their rightful place on our public lands. Despite more than 45,000 currently in long-term holding facilities, the wild horse roundups continue.
Whatever their historical, genetic or biological significance, the wild horses of today represent their current adaptation in their respective habitats. The bone density, the longer cannon bone and other physiological and sociological changes that have occurred make them what they are today. While geneticist Dr Gus Cothran (University of Kentucky) observes that the past 20 years we have witnessed the disintegration of domestic horse breeds, wild horses continue to adapt and survive against all odds. This unique adaptability and hardiness simply cannot be replicated in domestic breeding situations. With regard to the earlier Colonial Spanish barb horses, Dr. Sponenberg, DVM (Virginia Tech), calls it a ‘genetic rescue,’ with the Old World Barb horses that cannot be reproduced once they are gone.
It is with this conscience that we recognize the American Wild Horse of Today as a re-introduced native wildlife species. Their resilience throughout the years in the face of mounting threats, has earned the American wild horse their rightful place on the most uninhabitable areas of America’s public lands as expressed in The Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, the will of the people.
Providing Rescue and Sanctuary
As an animal welfare organization, Return to Freedom’s primary focus is to preserve the sanctity, dignity and genetic diversity of America’s Wild Horses. The cornerstone of our conservation efforts rests in the American Wild Horse Sanctuary, home to over 400 wild horses and burros, and Spirit, a Kiger Mustang stallion.
Originally, the majority of our horses who arrived in 1998-2000 were captured on horseback in natural ‘family bands.’ They came to us through rescue efforts, organized in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We mandated that the horses be relocated with their family and natural herd groups intact.
Other horses have come from various rescue efforts and ‘saving the pieces’ projects — reuniting horses captured in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) roundups who were destined for long-term holding and slaughter pipelines, as well as ‘rare-breeds’ who were facing auction dispersals due to economic hardship.
In order to allow the horses to live as natural a lifestyle as we can provide, wild horse bands at Return to Freedom are managed with native PZP, a non-hormonal immuno-contraception. This allows hormone-driven movement and behaviors which are necessary for the horse’s well being physically and emotionally while prohibiting actual conception. The data shows that after six consecutive years on the vaccine, mares become infertile. Most mares at RTF have been maintained on the vaccine and are now infertile; however, some mares do not respond to the vaccine (non-responders).
To address this situation, our options would be:
- Remove ‘non-responders’ from a stallion band
- Remove stallions from bands
- Geld stallions (this disturbs behaviors significantly)
- Vasectomize stallions (experimental) hopefully will maintain behaviors over long-term with no reproduction
- Spay mares
- Permanent sterilization vaccines and IUDs for mares (data shows that this creates various medical problems to mares)
Because Return to Freedom’s management policy is “least intrusive management necessary,” we chose to further increase population management in 2012 with option #4: vasectomize the stallions in the band with the non- responsive mares. In another band, with a stallion who displays rare/unique genetics, we will introduce mares who do respond to the PZP vaccine and relocate his non-responsive females into the herd with the vasectomized stallions.
Our data, presented at the 2012 Wild Horse Symposium in Jackson Hole, WY, shows that RTF’s birth control program has an efficacy rate of about 65%. This is lower than some years due to 8-10 mares in a specific herd that continue to be resistant to the vaccine. In 2012, we also decided to vasectomize the stallions in that herd to maintain natural behaviors, but eliminate reproduction. Currently, all mares housed with band stallions are either non-fertile after years of contraception or are maintained on birth control.
Return to Freedom will continue the Native PZP birth control management program for ‘rare strains’ and begin to explore vasectomies for all BLM and FWS stallions at the sanctuary. Currently, the unique-strain herd mares are responsive to the vaccine.
Adoption and Foster Care
To date, we have rescued hundreds of wild horses from U.S. public and park lands, abusive situations, and others that have been displaced for various reasons. However, we are unable to provide sanctuary for all the horses who are in need. To fill that gap, when appropriate, we may also make foster care programs available so that some of the younger horses who demonstrate a desire to socialize with humans can find suitable homes.
RTF has strict Terms and Conditions and a policy that requires the horse(s) to be returned to the sanctuary if for any reason an adopter’s situation changes and makes it impossible for them to continue to provide an appropriate environment, feed and care for the horse(s). RTF also requires a generous donation to the sanctuary from adopter.
*Please note: Stallions are not available to the public for adoption.
Preservation Programs — Unique Strains
Among the horses residing at the sanctuary, several have been proven — through DNA blood testing and pheno typing — to be genetically rare breeds from the early Colonial Spanish horses that re-entered north America in the 1500-1600s. These horse populations are pretty much gone from our rangelands and those that remain total a few hundred. We work to ensure that these original Old World horses, the foundation of America’s mustangs, are preserved in strategic locations and diverse healthy bands as part of a collaborative “genetic rescue” effort.
These are smaller bands and include:
- The Choctaw Pony
- The Wilbur-Cruce Horses (Colonial Spanish Mission)
- The Sulphur Springs (displaying strong Sorraia typing)
- The Cerbat
Return to Freedom is not breeding these Spanish Barb horses for sale. We are a conservatory, a genetic rescue, if you will, ensuring that there is a small, diverse, and healthy population of what little remains of America’s early Colonial Spanish mustangs, which currently includes our possession of the Choctaw Pony, the Sulphur Springs/Sorria horse, and the Wilbur-Cruce horse and Cerbat.
The preservation of a viable genetic population of Spanish Barb horses depends on the long-term vision of those devoted to these animals, and to this end, RTF has established a small conservation effort managed with immuno-contraception. Once RTF expands to a larger facility, we can discuss whether it is necessary to remove some mares from the contraception to avoid infertility or, if there are horses from these strains needing rescue or adoption, adding to our small bands in that manner.
These bands are managed with Native PZP, a non-hormonal immuno-contraception. A mare may contribute one time to the gene pool and then be maintained on birth control. Data shows that after six consecutive years on the vaccine, mares become infertile, so it may be that a few mares come off the vaccine in order to maintain fertility if necessary. Most mares at RTF have been maintained on the vaccine and are now infertile. (As some mares do not respond to the vaccine, they may be removed from a stallion band. Currently, all mares are on the contraception.)
Return to Freedom is affiliated with the Choctaw Horse Conservation Program, a collaborative project with Dr. Philip Sponenberg, The Rickman Family, and preservationist and screenwriter John Fusco. This project, which is designed to preserve the almost extinct Choctaw horse, is a harmonious relationship with Return to Freedom’s rare breeds preservation program. The foundation band is currently not reproducing and has been stabilized with two generations of mares.
We Need You
Please consider any of the following ways in which you can get involved in our conservation efforts:
- Sponsor a horse at the Sanctuary
- Become a foster parent
Join Return to Freedom and the Rickman Family to preserve an American legend
Wild horses galloping across the Western plains is an image that has long been associated with the spirit and freedom of America, and in 2004 Americans fell in love with a legendary mustang, thanks to the Disney film Hidalgo.
The film featured the story of Frank Hopkins, a man who devoted his life to protecting wild horses, and his famous mustang Hidalgo. Descendants of Hidalgo still range free in Blackjack Mountain near Finley, OK, along side original strains of the Choctaw Indian Horse. Owned and overseen by Bryant Rickman, the horses have been able to range in hundreds of thousands of acres, until now. Having endured centuries of change, the survival of this herd is now threatened. They are facing their last stand.
The Oklahoma Land and Timber Company has, with very little warning, terminated the grazing leases on Blackjack Mountain. They have just sent a final notice demanding that the mustangs be removed by March 31st 2008 and then it will be handed over to the local Sheriff’s department who will take the horses to auction.
In an effort to preserve this historical herd, John Fusco, Bryant Rickman, Dr. Phillip Sponenberg (geneticist), Return to Freedom Founder Neda DeMayo, and other conservation groups have joined forces to launch an urgent rescue operation.
The IMMEDIATE and URGENT need is to safely relocate the horses to a 300 acre tract of land owned by the Rickman family, and to provide feed and veterinary care for the herd.
Make a donation to this historical effort via Paypal or call (805) 737-9246 to make a donation over the phone. Please note: Choctaw Horse Conservation on all donations.
Let us know if you have a sanctuary and wish to work together or if you would like to get involved in other ways.